On the opening of Disneyland back in 1955, Walt was able to introduce each of his fantastic lands in just a few sentences each. But as they’ve grown, and even when they first opened, their component themes are incredibly wide ranging; an eclectic collage of ideas and settings grouped loosely by their land’s title. In this series, I hope to break down these sub-themes (their settings both in location and in time) to better understand how to lands come together as a cohesive whole.
“Frontierland! Tall tales and true from the legendary past.”
“Frontierland is a tribute to the faith, courage and ingenuity of the pioneers who blazed the trails across America. We find ourselves back in the exciting days when the story of our country’s past was being lived. We will ride a covered wagon to a roaring river town, pay a visit to Slue Foot Sue’s Golden Horseshoe, and then catch the paddlewheel steamer Mark Twain for a trip down the Rivers of America.”
Frontierland has become synonymous with ‘cowboy land’ at Disney, but I hope to open people’s eyes to how much more Frontierland represents; it is a representation of American history and geography from its earliest discovery to the turn of the 20th century (when Main Street USA takes its place).
When Frontierland opened, it was a living piece of the past that gave guests the opportunity to travel like one of the early American pioneers. The emphasis was on a majestic landscape being slowly tamed by the hardship of the inhabitants, but still holding new wonders to astound the guests. Similar to the ghost town at Knott’s Berry Farm, Frontierland established itself by not solely representing the past, but infusing it with the Hollywood western that was hugely popular at the time. Walking through the fort stockade entrance, guests found themselves in a thriving western town. Straight ahead were the steaming smoke stacks of the Mark Twain, ready to make its way down the mighty American rivers. To the left, were the iconic western buildings of the town; the general store, and the bustling Golden Horseshoe, inviting guests inside for a rollickin’ good time. The combination of historical accuracy (there was a Davy Crockett Museum) and pure Hollywood magic (exemplified by the Davy Crockett television show), made this Frontierland stand out; this was the Western Town.
Beyond the town was the Indian Village. Here, amongst the teepees, totem poles and burial ground guests could witness the customs and culture of Native Americans, representing many tribes across the country. At the heart of this was the ceremonial dance circle; or guests could alternatively climb aboard the Indian War Canoes and paddle their way down the Rivers of America. Even with its move further along the river in 1956, this was still the Indian Village.
But that was not all. North of the town lay the wide open wilderness. Conestoga wagons, pack mules, stagecoaches and walking trails allowed guests to explore the wonders of nature’s landscape travelling through majestic rock sculptures, strangely anthropomorphic cacti, past colourful bubbling geysers and along the wide open riverbank. The switch to only the mine train and the pack mules in 1960 would not affect the spirit of the environment. Added were Bear Country, the mighty waterfall of Cascade Peak, the dam-building beavers, the magical Rainbow Caverns and the perilously dangerous balancing rocks. This area celebrated the wonder and majesty of America’s landscape and wildlife; this was Nature’s Wonderland.
One year after the park opened, guests were invited to board rafts and sail across to the newly opened Tom Sawyer Island. Here, guests became part of Mark Twain’s world, climbing rocks, exploring caves and stumbling across rickety barrel bridges. This was the fantasy of American youth and lazy summer days, the ultimate adventure playground, and a dedication to classic American literature – Tom Sawyer Island.
In 1958, a small plaza near the Mark Twain received a new name; El Zocalo – the traditional name of a Mexican town square. Inspired by the increasingly successful Zorro television program, El Zocalo Park was a piece of Mexico in Frontierland – for the first time expanding Frontierland beyond the borders of the United States (although the land represented would later join the US, at the time it is set it was part of Spanish California). Mexican Imports sold south-western goods; Casa de Fritos (later known as Casa Mexicana) sold Mexican food. More recently, the restaurant reopened as Rancho de Zocalo Restaurante, but the theme remains; this is Mexico.
In 1966 came one of the grandest single upgrades to Disneyland; New Orleans Square. Now some may consider this an entirely separate land (as the map certainly does), but there are a number of reasons to suspect this was intended as a sub-land of Frontierland. On its opening day, Walt Disney explained that “Frontierland is representing the hardy pioneers and things that really made this country in the last hundred years what it is, and New Orleans comes into this thing in this way; that was a very important acquisition that we made at the time, that we purchased New Orleans from the French”, and later explaining “the Gadsden Purchase was another part of the expansion of our country, and that is what will be known and developed later on as the Mexican area”. To Walt, New Orleans Square was just one of the three representations of American expansion, and for any further proof, look at the painted sign on the dockside in New Orleans; the shipping company sign, right in the middle of New Orleans Square, describes itself as Frontierland. New Orleans Square represented the Crescent City sometime in the mid 19th century, and by extension the Louisiana Purchase which so radically expanded the United State’s dominion over the continent. From the city streets, to the outlying bayous, and even right out into the Caribbean with Pirates, New Orleans Square represented a whole range of American history and geography.
Eventually, Nature’s Wonderland made way for Big Thunder Mountain, now an extension of the Western Town. But 1986 brought a new sub-land, Big Thunder Ranch – which was astoundingly advertised when it opened as the first new land since New Orleans Square (a bit of an oversell, I think). Big Thunder Ranch gave representation to the home farm and the cattle ranch, where guests could interact with farm favourites, experiencing what life was like on the prairie. This was the Ranch.
In 1972 came the Country Bear Jamboree, and with it Bear Country. Planted with two hundred and sixty-five trees, ranging from pines and evergreens to redwoods, Bear Country represented the endless forests of the Great Northwest – with a bit on anthropomorphic whimsy.
The 1988 addition of Splash Mountain began an identity change however. The Georgia setting for the Song of the South inspired attraction was a far cry from the Great Northwest, and the lands name was changed to Critter Country. Now the focus was on cartoon animals of America, regardless of their location. Later, the replacement of the Country Bear Jamboree with the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh finally clipped any ties with Frontierland, adding the setting of the English Hundred Acre Wood, and changing Critter Country to be the land of anthropomorphic forest animals, regardless of geographic location.
Walt Disney World
With the upcoming celebration of the Bicentennial, the Magic Kingdom took a bold step and excluded an entrance to Frontierland from the hub. In its place was a bridge to Liberty Square, analogous to, but distinct from, New Orleans Square. Just like New Orleans Square, I’m willing to assert that Liberty Square is a sub-land of an even more expanded Frontierland, in which the history and geography of America is traversed as guests travel from east to west along the Rivers of America. Liberty Square represents the American Northeast; from pre-Revolutionary New York with the Haunted Mansion, to somewhere in Philadelphia, shortly after July 4th 1776. The Sleepy Hollow food outlet even injected some of America’s earliest literature into this sub-land. This is Liberty Square.
Across the river, Tom Sawyer Island again began a representation of American’s literary past, whilst heading into the official Frontierland, we return to the Western Town as established by Disneyland; part history and part Hollywood. The legendary Western River Expedition was intended to have been constructed where Big Thunder Mountain currently lies, and would have given a permanent home to Nature’s Wonderland if it had been built.
Placed as the perfect transition between the Spanish themed Caribbean Plaza in Adventureland and the Frontierland town, a small Mexican area stands next to the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Café.
The historical progression was interrupted with the addition of Splash Mountain in 1992, which attempted to fuse the Southern Brer Rabbit story with the surrounding cowboy town. The setting is somewhat confused due to artistic license, and I’m unsure exactly whether it would count as a subtheme representing Georgia when it is so out of place amongst the theming around it.
Without as much connection to the historical sourcing of Disneyland’s Frontierland, Tokyo Disneyland’s equivalent was renamed Westernland (due to the lack of an appropriate translation); and very much rethought as a recreation of the Hollywood western movies. The Western Town and Tom Sawyer Island remained, whilst New Orleans Square, in a reduced form, was moved across to Adventureland.
Rather than attempting to squeeze Splash Mountain into the cowboy world of Westernland, Critter Country was opened as a completely new land for the park in 1992. Joined by the Beaver Brothers Explorers Canoes, Critter Country in Tokyo Disneyland retains its theme as a representation of anthropomorphic American animals.
Frontierland in Disneyland Paris is huge, and is located in the traditional place for Adventureland to better flow into the (also Americana) Main Street USA. Here, the generic Western Town is given a name; the mining town of Thunder Mesa, and filled with so much iconic imagery of the American West it is astounding; a general store, a saloon, a steakhouse, a mining supplies office, and much more. The entrance to the land is again a fort stockade, but here it is a walkthrough depicting, in a museum style, the famous figures of American frontier past. The setting is therefore somewhat confusing; are we in the 1800s, or is this merely a recreation? My assumption is that as it is a transition between the Hub and the core Frontierland, the Imagineers feel free to bend the time period.
Travelling west beyond the town, are three small sub-lands. Mexico is again represented, with the Fuente del Oro Restaurante, whilst the Pocahontas Indian Village represents the Native American past. The Ranch is also here, but, whilst it used to be a petting zoo like at Disneyland, now it serves as a Woody and Jesse Meet & Greet. Still, the prairie life lives on, especially with the impressive Cowboy Cookout Barbeque barn.
Hong Kong Disneyland
Uniquely, Hong Kong Disneyland has no Frontierland. In its place will be the miniland Grizzly Gulch, which, with its Big Grizzly Mountain rollercoaster and abandoned forest town built in 1888, is very much the spiritual successor to Bear Country and the American Northwest.
In summary, Disney’s Frontierland is much more than a cowboy town. Anchored with a Hollywood inspired western town, Frontierland is a representation of not only centuries of American history, but of the natural landscapes and animals of the United States and beyond. From the colonial towns of the north-east, to the endless forests of the north-west, via the wondrous canyons of Arizona, the baking deserts of Mexico and the celebratory streets of New Orleans, Frontierland is a living monument to the hardships overcome by the American people, and a demonstration of how the country grew from thirteen small colonies to one of the most amazing countries on Earth. Its subthemes are;
- Western Town
- Indian Village
- Nature’s Wonderland
- Tom Sawyer Island
- New Orleans (and the Deep South)
- The Ranch
- The American Northwest (Bear Country)
- Critter Country (before the addition of Winnie the Pooh)
- Liberty Square
If we recognise that Frontierland is not just a cowboy land, but a land of American geography and history up until the mid to late 1800s, there is huge scope for future additions;
- Could Nature’s Wonderland, which now has no representation in any Disney park, return, allowing guests to see glistening gold and crystal caves, cacti forests and painted deserts? A representation of America's south-western landscapes?
- Perhaps more focus could be given to America’s folk tales and legends, from Paul Bunyan to Johnny Appleseed.
- Could the frontiers of America be extended to the harsh climate of Alaska, purchased in 1867?
- Or perhaps the Great Lakes or other areas of natural beauty across America?
- Could the arrival of the Pilgrims, or before that even Columbus, be represented in Frontierland?
- To go in a more whimsical direction, what about the Weird West - the combination of the Wild West with horror, occult or fantasy.
- Or even cowboy Steampunk, hinted at with the never built Geyser Mountain.
Once again, I hope this dissection of Disney's subthemes is of interest. Next, I continue my way around Disneyland with Fantasyland!
Huge thanks to Daniel Lew for providing information about El Zocalo!